TORONTO (CP) - There is a distinct chance that gritty Leaf winger Gary Roberts will make his return from a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries Saturday night as the Ottawa Senators come into to Air Canada Centre to face his Maple Leafs.
Now that the "when" seems to have been answered, the question becomes "where" and "with who".
However, Pat Quinn isn't losing sleep over where he's going to insert Roberts into his lineup.
Roberts played most of last season on the top line centred by Mats Sundin, but Quinn won't immediately break up Sundin, Nik Antropov and Alexander Mogilny because they have been too productive - 23 points in the last five games - to dismantle.
Quinn will accommodate Roberts elsewhere in the lineup.
"Gary is one of those guys you can put on the ice with two mules," Quinn said after practice Monday. "His value to us is his hard-nosed, two-way play, and not the number of goals he scores."
Quinn is a proponent of the tenet that a club has to be strong down the middle to win a championship. So, he sees Antropov returning to a centre position, but not just yet.
|Everyone in Toronto can't wait for the return of Gary Roberts.|
Dave Sandford NHLI/GettyImages
"It's Pat's decision," said Antropov. "Whatever he does, I don't care.
"I've played the last 10 games on the left wing and I feel comfortable there right now."
The six-foot-five native of Kazakhstan, 22, has thrived alongside the two veterans. He's third in team scoring now. Mogilny has 56 points, Sundin 47, and Antropov 34.
"I'm using my size and reach more, and that has helped me a lot," said Antropov.
Knee injuries slowed his development.
"The biggest difference now is that he's healthy, knock on wood," said Sundin. "He hasn't had the injuries he had the previous couple of years.
"The knees, knock on wood again, are working for him and he's in the lineup for a longer period of time and is establishing himself and gaining confidence.
"As soon as he came here, we knew he had the ability to play hockey at the level he is at right now, and even better, I think. He's got the tools and skills that it takes. I think he's going to continue developing into a great player."
The Leafs (30-20-4-1) bring a five-game winning streak into a home game Tuesday night against the Edmonton Oilers. They are at Chicago on Wednesday. The game against the conference-leading Senators will be a weekend litmus test.
"For Gary, just to get back into the lineup is going to be a big boost for our team," said Sundin. "He'll be fired up. We can't wait to get Gary back into the lineup."
To make room for Roberts, somebody is going to have to sit, be demoted, or be traded before the March 11 deadline.
"There's competition in the dressing room, which is good," said Sundin. "For the team to keep getting better, you need competition in the room.
"It's a healthy atmosphere."
There's only one thing left for Roberts to do in practice now.
"I have to get back in the groove of battling in the corners," he said.
This is a tight-knit group, and acquiring a name player to bolster the roster for the playoffs is unappealing to many of the players.
"I've got mixed feelings on that," said Shayne Corson. "I feel we have a strong team here right now.
"We have a good nucleus of guys. I feel we have a good enough team to compete for the Stanley Cup right now. Obviously, if they feel they can make the club stronger by making a trade, they're going to do it but that's out of the players' hands. We have good chemistry right now and you don't want to set that off too much."
For critics who continue to insist Toronto's defence corps is below championship standards, goaltender Ed Belfour begs to differ.
"It's underestimated," Belfour says of the blue-line corps. "We've got a good puck-handling defence.
"They like to control the puck, and I like that. We're not chasing the puck all over the place and banging it around and just dumping it out. I'm happy with what we've done so far this year. I don't really care what other people say. I know what they've done for me, and they've done a great job."
Meanwhile, a healthier, slimmer Pat Quinn wasn't on the ice Monday.
"I had some checkup appointments and busted the machine in the tests so it was a good result," he said with a grin.
His more relaxed demeanour since having an irregular heartbeat remedied last spring is obvious to all, although he insists he's the same man.
"I don't think I've changed at all," he said. "I think I've always been a big marshmallow."